The Disappearing Load

The Disappearing Load

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.


I am a broker operating a modest business. A customer gave us a load of 42,000 pounds of scrap aluminum siding.

Our original carrier had to cancel just before the load was to be picked up. We secured an empty truck near the pickup point. This carrier had moved one load for us a few months earlier. He told us that his insurance company info had changed since the last time but could only give us the information verbally because he was in his truck and moving.

We in turn gave him the shipper''s phone number and told him to call for directions. He didn''t even ask what the load was, he just wanted it as it was bringing him close to home. He made it in time and got loaded, telling us he would call from a truck stop along the way, that he would need an advance, and at that time he would send us new information on his company. He is an owner-operator with his own authority, a one-man show so to speak.

We never heard from him again. Our customer is a third-party metal trader who purchased the metal and resold it prior to the move. He paid the seller before the shipment, so the seller couldn''t care less where the truck is.

As further information, the local law enforcement authorities were called in, as was the FBI. Neither did very much, as the information is spotty. We have his name and an approximate idea of where his home is and a description of the truck. The driver''s insurance information doesn''t check out but we had a bad cell phone connection and could have got it wrong. The name is hard to figure out on the bill of lading but all possibilities have been dead ends and authorities have since ended the search. The driver advised also that he changed company names and gave us the new one but it doesn''t check out either, although the shipper said placards on the truck matched the new company name.

One thing we do know is that the driver gave my dispatcher a fax number to send the paperwork to so his wife could go pick it up. It went to a truck stop and the desk clerk says she did pick it up. Our assumption is that something has happened to the driver but of course the other possibility is that the guy stole the load. I don''t believe he did but I am the only one who feels that way and if he wanted to steal the load there was little anyone could do to stop him.

But either way the fact remains that the load never showed and the metal trader is out about $23,000 and wants me to pay. Any thoughts on this mess?


I''ve left in all the detail mainly because it''s an intriguing mystery, since there''s a real quick answer to your question: as a broker you aren''t liable for loss or damage unless you expressly contracted for such liability - as you clearly didn''t in this case or you wouldn''t be asking.

Actually, there''s one other remote possibility: a court could hold you liable if your negligence in selecting the carrier were directly responsible for the loss. You certainly cut a few corners because of time pressure but you had no reason to suspect that the driver was a thief. I think the negligence argument won''t stand up even if theft is proved.

And I doubt that it will be. Surely there are other loads more attractive to steal than scrap metal worth about fifty cents a pound, which a driver who stole it impulsively (you said he didn''t know the nature of the load before he picked it up) probably would have difficulty selling for evena fraction of that amount. He''d almost surely be better off economically with the freight charges. Further, there are reasonable explanations for both the inaccurate insurance information (bad phone connection) and untraceable company name (it could be a "doing-business-as").

On the other hand, your "something happened" theory also has its flaws. The driver has a wife who''s on at least good enough terms with him to run an inconvenient errand; if he simply vanished, wouldn''t she notice and file a missing persons report? Presumably the authorities routinely checked and found none. Furthermore, what might have happened to make truck, load and driver all disappear without a trace? I can think only of hijacking and that seems improbable.

Well, whatever the right answer, you''re in a position to readily find it. First, you''ve got to have some sort of name via the phone call and you faxed the papers to some named body. Second, since the driver handled a load for you before, you''ve got a wealth of information in your carrier and accounts payable records that you don''t seem to have tapped. Surely with all these facts it shouldn''t be that tough to track down both vehicle and driver.

I can only assume that your worry about having to pay out a $23,000 claim has clouded your thinking about other aspects of this situation. Now that I''ve taken that off your shoulders, perhaps you can put your mind at work in a more focused fashion and get to the bottom of this rather curious "Case of the Vanished Van."

-- Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at P. O. Box 76, Morganton, Ga. 30560; phone (706) 374-7201; fax (706) 374-7202, e-mail Contact him to order the 536-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2001, at $80 plus shipping.